The 21st-Century Ace

Sports Editor talks with Paul Bonhomme, the reigning champion of the Red Bull Air Race

Photographs: Tom Lovelock/Red Bull Air Race Via AP Images

Photographs: Tom Lovelock/Red Bull Air Race Via AP Images

You are 90 seconds away from becoming the champion of the world. 90 seconds away from climbing to the top step of the podium in front of a glittering wall of flash bulbs, from burying the demons of two second-placed finishes and being soaked from head-to-toe with vintage bubbly in the time-honoured fashion.

Trouble is, to get there, you must delicately manoeuvre a high-performance aerobatic plane between a series of garish, 20 metre high cones, while subjecting your body to bone-rattling forces of around 10.5 Gs and speeds approaching 370 km/h. Meanwhile, far below on the beach, half-a-million pairs of eyes are locked on your every move. What would be going through your mind?

“I felt incredibly calm. I knew I had to fly without a mistake. I get very nervous whilst I’m on the ground, especially with lots of people around but when I climb into the aeroplane, everything seems to become tranquil.”

Introducing, in a nutshell, Paul Bonhomme. An aviation man from an aviation family who, while not participating in the Red Bull Air Race series, flies Boeing 747s commercially for British Airways or can be found mucking around in some of the most historic aeroplanes in the world, among them the iconic Spitfire.

“In 2009, my “day job” was a perfect antidote to the racing,” says Bonhomme. “Flying a 747 is mostly management of an aeroplane and the target is to replicate a flying armchair for the passengers…a far cry from Air Racing.”

A wonderful understatement – the Red Bull series, for the uninitiated, is a celebration of aerobatic flying which, from humble beginnings, has grown to span four continents, challenge the finest pilots in the world and, gradually, steal the breath of the world. It demands nano-second reflexes, nerves of steel, physical and mental resolve, and an unbreakable affinity between man and his flying machine. The series combines jaw-dropping spectacle and some of the most beautiful destinations in the world. What’s not to like?

For Bonhomme, after finishing runner-up in both 2007 and 2008, last year was when everything finally came together. On a beautiful October afternoon in Barcelona, the British pilot, having not finished lower than second throughout the whole season, held his nerve when it mattered to kill off the challenge of Austrian pilot Hannes Arch and scoop the trophy.

“When I took off for that final competitive flight of 2009, I knew that the previous three years had been spent in search of the World Championship with, up to that moment, nothing to show for it. My rather irritating scream over the radio after my win probably gave the game away that I was hugely relieved. Three years of searching for that win had worked. Lifting the trophy sorted out lots of doubts and frustrations from the previous three years.”

Red Bull Air Race - San Diego

It was also vindication for his faith in the Team Bonhomme project and a testament to the hard work and perseverance of the small core of staff who work to keep Paul at the top of his sport. In contrast to the hundreds-strong set-ups in other sports, the team consists simply of Wade Hammond, who maintains the spritely, Oklahoma-built Zivko Edge 540 aircraft, and Nigel Warren, the Team Coordinator who figures out the immense logistics of shipping the operation across the globe and promotes the Team Bonhomme brand.

“You need a good team around you,” said Bonhomme. “We have the best Team Coordinator of the series and he doesn’t miss a trick! Without that help it would be a headache. This year we’ll be air-freighting around the globe and then flying the aeroplane around Europe for the rest of the season. It’ll mean customs forms and carnets and invoices ‘all over the shop’ but when it works it’s very satisfying.”

The first month of the year is always an exciting time for all involved with the Red Bull flying circus, with new venues being announced on an almost weekly basis.

This year’s trans-continental calendar includes dates in Abu Dhabi, Perth, Ontario, New York City, Lausitz, Budapest and Lisbon, with locations yet to be fixed in France and South America. The return Down Under will be particularly relished by Bonhomme: “The most convenient location goes to Perth… my hotel room was a five minute walk to the aeroplane. Breakfast at 8.15, leave hotel at 8.30, check aeroplane at 8.35, flying at 8.45. Perfect.”

Sadly, the schedule doesn’t appear to have room for a much-anticipated return to these shores. “Track-wise, Longleat [in Wiltshire] will always be my favourite. Believe me that track had everything. Turning around the hill with your wing-tip in the tree tops whilst aiming for an invisible gap obscured by trees, all at 200mph, was the most fun I think I’ll ever have in an aeroplane.”

While all the pilots on the Red Bull circuit have their favourite locations, the skills required vary little. Each course is created to test the full spectrum of flying skills, with penalty seconds added for failing to pass an air gate in the correct manner – either in level flight, “knife-edge” [vertical] flight, or slaloming through the chicanes.

Despite natural disappointment at being unable to fly in front of his home fans, Bonhomme is under no illusions how much planning and organisation goes into every race, rebuffing the idea that the ubiquitous Red Bull sponsorship means the event has become too commercial for its own good. He also believes that the competition shows exciting signs of growth, while similar sports series, notably Formula One, have been hit by severe financial difficulties.

“One thing I’ve learned about sport since I started Air Racing is that someone has to pay for it. Try and close down a city centre, organise the requirements for 400,000 spectators, ship 15 teams plus their aeroplanes, toolboxes and spare engines, transport the gear for a world TV feed to the site, all from the other side of the planet.

“This is a new sport and it needs backing financially. The basic ingredients required are: exciting sport lots of viewers + advertising + media coverage… this sport will find its feet soon but I don’t feel there’s a problem at all, it’s just a new sport competing with a lot of established events.”

While the sport in general continues to pick up momentum on the international stage, there is one thing that Team Bonhomme will want to preserve in 2010; the habit of winning. As the plane undergoes its final close-season modifications in Phoenix, Arizona, ahead of another keenly-contested championship, Paul is understandably giving no clues away.

“We’re flat out to improve the set-up for 2010. As winners in 2009, there is only one way to go and that is down. Unless we win again, and that is top of our game-plan for 2010. I’m staying quiet about our exact tactics for 2010.”

Not that all this ambition and thirst for glory has been allowed to overshadow what really matters – “My working life is perfect… I get to fly aeroplanes around the cities of the world and I get to meet lots of interesting folks!”

THE RED BULL AIR RACE SERIES 2010

March 26-27
Abu Dhabi, UAE

April 17-18
Perth, Australia

May 8-9
South America

June 5-6
Windsor, Ontario

June 19-20
New York City

July 17-18
France

August 7-8
Lausitz, Germany

August 19-20
Budapest, Hungary

September 4-5
Lisbon, Portugal

www.redbullairrace.com
www.teambonhomme.com

The Team Bonhomme Facebook page can be found here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/TEAM-BONHOMME/58905671836?ref=ts

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